The Selfish Biosphere



The Selfish Biosphere



The gene is selfish with respect to whole organisms: it replicates itself by using organisms as survival machines that might have to sacrifice themselves for the genetic good, as in raising young. Genes bear the same kind of relation to individual organisms that people used to think applied to the relation between species or groups and individual organisms (acting “for the good of the species”). However, it doesn’t follow from this that genes are not themselves subject to a similar type of selfishness. Elsewhere I have argued that genes act as survival machines for the process of natural selection; here I will expand on this idea.[1] In the case of so-called artificial selection just such a relation holds: the human breeder may literally survive (make a living) by the intentional selection of genes and hence whole organisms. The genes are selected by the breeder in such a way as to sell the maximum numbers of dogs (say). This may even be accomplished by chemical analysis and advanced genetic technology. In such a case the gene is the entity that serves the interests of its designer, thus maximizing the designer’s survival prospects. Likewise, in the case of so-called natural selection, where no such conscious designer is present, that impersonal process generates genes that enable it (that process) to continue in existence and even to spread far and wide. What I want to add to this picture now is the suggestion that we can refer to the selfish entity (a process or mechanism or pattern of relations) as the “biosphere”. The term is variously defined, sometimes meaning the regions of the earth occupied by life forms and sometimes meaning the totality of all earthly life forms; I wish to mean by it the fundamental processes or mechanisms or traits of life forms. It translates directly as “life-sphere” and this is helpful for my purposes: I mean the sphere of reality in which living processes are manifested. We might coin the abstract term “life-ness”, to be contrasted with non-living objects and systems (rocks, atoms). It is the idea of the biological as such—the vital, the animate. Then the claim is that it is the biosphere in this sense that is the ultimately selfish biological reality. The biosphere constructs genes as its survival machines via natural selection, which in turn construct whole organisms (as well as the external products of organisms such as webs or burrows). It is what survives and prospers when genes survive and prosper in virtue of the survival machines they build. The processes of life are the ends of the biological line, the final beneficiaries of biological activity. Life itself is “selfish”.

Let me be more specific about what these processes are. We can certainly cite natural selection as a life process—the main engine of life creation. It is a biological mechanism or procedure. But we can also list certain universal traits of life that survive because of the excellence of the genes they produce (in a certain sense of “produce”): reproduction, respiration, digestion, growth, maturation, embryogenesis, locomotion, and no doubt others. These traits are responsible for the success of organisms, which leads to the success of genes, which leads to these traits continuing in existence, i.e. their success. The biosphere is the totality of these traits, processes, mechanisms, and events—life elements, we might say. So the biosphere is what benefits from excellent genes (hence excellent organisms): it thrives and expands when effective genes exist, and it would wither and die if it started manufacturing lousy genes (ones that produced short-lived non-reproducing organisms). So we can say, for instance, that the trait or process of reproduction is what survives when genes survive—they enable it to survive. The biosphere is to genes what dog breeders are to genes: except that it is a mindless cause of differential survival not an intentional agent. If we imagine that the entire biosphere was invented by a super-scientist, precisely in order to create living processes, with genes brought in just in order to bring about that end, then this super-scientist would be the equivalent of a dog breeder. As it is, the biosphere acts like a dog breeder, i.e. it keeps going because of what it creates–hence “the selfish biosphere”. Dawkins called his book The Selfish Gene, but other titles would have been possible: The Successful Gene, The Megalomaniac Gene, The Ruthless Gene, The Predatory Gene, The Immortal Gene, etc. Likewise, we can transfer these titles to the biosphere: it is what fits these (mostly metaphorical) descriptions—the apex beneficiary and mastermind. And just as we might correspondingly refer to the individual organism as “the exploited organism”, “the slave organism”, “the victim organism”, or “the employee organism” in relation to its genetic masters, so we could speak of the gene as “the exploited gene”, “the slave gene”, etc. in relation to the biosphere. It is the ultimate boss, controller, and beneficiary. The point of a gene, for the biosphere, is to act as a means for its own survival and flourishing; and indeed the genes have served the biosphere well over the eons, as witness its extent and richness. Just as we are the “lumbering robots” of the genes (to use Dawkins’ phrase), so the genes are the lumbering robots of the biosphere—or perhaps better its faithful nanobots. The gene master has its servants in the form of organisms, but the master is in turn a servant to a super-master, viz. the life process.[2] The biosphere is the ultimate employer, creator, and beneficiary, logically speaking. Of course, neither genes nor biosphere get to enjoy their dominance, not being conscious beings, but they are the de factomasters of the biological universe: they are the things that organisms (those moist plebian units) labor to maintain. What comes as a shock to the genes’ egotism is that they are exploited too—or perhaps we should say they are in existence only because of the process of natural selection and should therefore be grateful (as organisms should be grateful to genes for creating them at all). If you are happy to exist, then you can thank those tiny scheming selfish genes, and ultimately the life force that brought them into existence (i.e. natural selection with its host of life-promoting traits). Your mind and brain exist only because the biosphere was desperate to keep itself in existence, if I may put it so. Remember, when organisms go, it goes (and that, we are told, is just a matter of time). The extinction of all species is the extinction of the biosphere, as well as the extinction of all genes. The days of the biosphere are numbered, but meanwhile the genes labor to keep it in existence.

One might wonder whether there is an analogue in the biosphere of competition among genes. Genes don’t just build survival machines; they build survival machines that are better than those of their genetic rivals. Natural selection is selective–picky, discriminating. The gene that survives best is the gene that outperforms its rivals. Is there anything similarly competitive at the level of the biosphere? Indeed there is, as we may see by considering the fate of the dinosaurs. As everyone knows, the dinosaurs went extinct as a result of a cataclysmic event, soon to be replaced by a burgeoning mammal population, leading eventually to us. The biosphere underwent a convulsion, altering its composition. This can be described as follows: the section of the biosphere consisting of dinosaur traits was replaced by mammalian traits in accordance with natural selection, since the post-cataclysmic environment was more hospitable to mammals than to dinosaurs. In other words, the genes that produce dinosaurs were not as effective as contributors to the biosphere as the genes that produce mammals: the biosphere did better under one genetic dispensation than the other. Traits that characterize mammals became more numerous than traits that characterize dinosaurs in the competition for survival. Living processes did better with mammals as their vehicles than with dinosaurs: better reproduction, respiration, locomotion, etc. Traits compete as genes compete (indeed genes compete in virtue of the traits they produce). The biosphere fluctuates over time as new traits and processes replace old ones, and it survives better under changing conditions according to the genes it produces. Particular types of life compete with other types of life under natural selection, just as particular types of genes so compete. So sections of the biosphere not only survive; they survive by competing with other sections. Life forms outperform other life forms.[3]

We might reasonably say that the central fact of biology is reproduction and inheritance. This is what distinguishes the biological world from the non-biological world (mountains don’t have baby mountains). Reproduction is the biological process par excellence. The primary job of the gene is to enable effective reproduction—to make sure the next survival machine is born.[4] Given that, it is the reproductive process in all its variety that is maximized by effective genes: the job of genes is to produce successful acts of reproduction, lots of them. Genes are reproduction maximizers. Not all reproduction is sexual, but most of it is, so we can say that genes operate to generate fruitful sexual acts. This means that the section of the biosphere that is most benefitted by good genes is the sexual section: good genes lead to an active sex life. So genes are sex maximizers: they act as they do so as to maximize the amount of sex in the biosphere. Less anthropomorphically, it is a de facto consequence of good genes that sex is maximized in the biosphere. The less sex there is, the less reproduction there is, and hence the less inheritance there is, which means the less transmission of genes there is. Genes and sex go hand in hand. The gene is really a sex machine—a device for bringing sex about. Thus the genes act as machines for generating sex in the biosphere. They are obsessed with it, dedicated to it. The ultimate rationale of genes is maximizing sex in the biosphere, because sex is required for reproduction, and reproduction is the basic fact of biological existence (the biosphere is the reproduction-sphere).[5]


Colin McGinn


[1] See “The Selfless Machine”; also my “Trait Selection” in Philosophical Provocations (2017).

[2] We could refer to this as “process biology” as distinct from “object biology”: processes are taken to be theoretically basic not objects like organisms and genes. This would bring biology closer to physics in some respects.

[3] The biosphere is usually limited to life on earth, but we can extend the notion to life elsewhere in the universe—so there can be many biospheres. In principle these could compete with each other for survival, though that would require tremendous feats of relocation or undreamt of forms of travel. There could be competition for natural resources as well as direct conflict. In such an eventuality the genes would act as competitive weapons in the struggle for biosphere survival; they would be means of preservation for biospheres. We would then have the analogue of competition among genes (and organisms) at the level of biospheres: the intergalactic selfish competitive mindless biosphere.

[4] If we ask what are the reproductive organs of the body, we quickly see that the genitals are just part of the story. In addition to the womb, we can say that the whole animal body is geared towards reproduction: the overall anatomy as well as the brain and mind. The animal needs to be able to mount its mate correctly, find its mate, entice its mate, and then carry out the necessary actions. The whole animal is involved in reproductive activity, this being the central biological imperative (you eat so you can mate). Looked at this way, the whole animal is a reproductive organ—a device for transmitting its genes into future generations. The entire biosphere is taken up with reproductive machinery and reproductive behavior, conceived broadly. The body is a survivalist sex machine dedicated to genetic reproduction.

[5] Let me put it cheekily as follows (we need not remain stone-faced about this): the DNA is a device for filling the biosphere with sex, a veritable libertine. And the amount of sex in it has increased exponentially as the population of living beings has increased. The biosphere is now having a lot of sex (courtesy of the genes and their bodily appendages). If the whole system had been set up by a superhuman erotomaniac, she would no doubt feel as if her work has been done, since planet Earth is pullulating with sex. Sex, you see, is what is preserved by biological activity. Before there was a sexless universe; then the biosphere came along and lo! sex was born. Sex has been going strong ever since, aided by genes and their bodily assistants. Selfish sex, as we might say.

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